From his Masters voice

Tiger Woods returns to Augusta soon, a year after his historic victory, as the world’s most famous sportsman. Lawrence Donegan finds him coping with programmed assurance – before his loss to Ernie Els last weekend, that is

Child prodigy, sporting genius, black icon. Amid all the eulogising it is easy to forget Eldrick “Tiger” Woods is mere flesh and blood, a college drop-out who has become the most famous sportsman in the world because of his ability to smash a golf ball out of sight while retaining a mesmeric control over its flight and direction.

But there is more to Tiger Woods than just golf. The current US Masters champion is 22 years old. How would you have responded at that age to hosting a conference call of 40 journalists from around the world? Petrified? Incoherent? Not Tiger. For him it was just another chore and he sailed through the first (and last) of his pre-Augusta grillings with the polished ease of a 50-year-old company CEO.

A “conference call” is at the square-wheel end of the computer revolution. It allows no eye contact, no facial expressions, no sense of occasion, no stage presence. As a means of communication it is unsatisfactory in many ways, except that it strips the subject of all the iconography, leaving the listener with the disembodied voice and the comforting thought that the icon is only human too.

For anyone who has spent the last 12 months on the Mir space station, Woods, a first-year pro, rewrote golf’s history when he won the 1997 Masters, finishing 18 under par (a record) with a winning margin of 12 strokes (another record). He was three months past his 21st birthday when he slipped on the green jacket, making him the youngest champion. The manner of his victory had many calling for the hallowed Augusta course to be “Tiger-proofed”. He was that good. The financial rewards have been astronomical as blue-chip companies scrambled to have their name associated with him.

There is less than three weeks to go before this year’s Masters but, such is the public appetite for Woods, such is his selling power, that Augusta’s competition committee persuaded him into a room at Bay Hill, Florida, from where he spoke to the world’s press. Even the Masters needs publicity.

The first impression of Woods – the voice – is that he is ferociously bright. After 35 minutes one feels that, if he were not such a genius on the golf course, Woods would be writing novels or running one of those blue-chip firms or inventing better ways to communicate with 40 people in different parts of the globe.

On the debit side every question is answered perfunctorily. He appears to have a problem with English accents. “What’s he saying?” he said when challenged by the cut-glass voice of the man from the London Times. What he was saying was, “Who do you see as the main challengers this year, Tiger?” “Oh. Anyone who plays. Anyone who has eligibility to get into the Masters is definitely good enough to win.”

The same glibness pervades all Woods’s replies. For the record, he believes he is playing better than at this point last year. He has won one tournament, the Johnny Walker Classic in Thailand, and has had four top-10 finishes in four tournaments in the States. “No doubt about it, I feel like I’m hitting the ball much more consistently than last year. Then I could hit a ball 10 to 15m further, when I didn’t know it was going to happen. I’m flighting the ball much better than I have done in a long time.”

Was he making any special preparations for the tournament? “I’m just doing a lot of hard work with Butch [Harmon, his coach], making sure that I peak for the first week in April.” What is he most looking forward to about his return to Augusta? “Just competing,” he replied, shortly.

What about last year’s victory? What was the biggest effect it had on his life? “The impact that it had on facial recognition. People recognise me a lot. I didn’t expect that but I’ve gradually grown accustomed to it and learned how to deal with it.” How does he handle the fame? “That’s a private matter.” What is his favourite hole at Augusta? “All of them. They have all got their own personality.”

After 10 minutes one aches for the straight talking of Montgomerie or the petulance of Severiano Ballesteros. Only when asked about mechanics of the golf swing or the tactics of playing Augusta’s devilish greens does Woods become expansive.

He has not been back there since winning last April but has heard there have been a few slight changes to the course, to pin positions on the sixth, the eighth and the 14th holes. Something has been done on the par-five 13th to penalise drivers who land in the trees on the right.

Is he going to play the course any differently from last year? “It all depends on the condition of the golf course. If it is soft and slow you can drive it out there a little bit further. If it is fast, you have to lay it back a little bit further for your second shot.”

Any insight into what is going on behind this PR facade comes indirectly. When Woods was asked if he spent much time thinking about last year’s victory, he said: “I watch a lot of it on video tape. People might think I’m doing that just to look at the tournament, but in fact I’m looking at swing position, I’m looking at the technical aspects of the game – why I hit the ball so well that week – and comparing it to what I’m doing now.”

This is a vision worth crying over. The rest of the world welcomes his magnificent victory as one of great social and historical significance: a young black tears down the racial boundaries in golf, the “whitest”, most conservative of all sports. Meanwhile the great man himself is parked in front of the television set, watching the video and working out whether his backswing is too long.

Perhaps it is asking too much of a 22-year-old who has known nothing other than his sport to become a spokesman for his generation. But the same could have been said about another young African-American who exploded on to the world sporting stage in the early 1960s. Muhammad Ali knew that his every punch and every win had as great a significance outside the ring as inside.

At 22 Ali was a fully formed political animal, aware of the world outside his chosen occupation and willing to use whatever power he had to shape it. Therein lies the difference between mere sporting greatness and real, lasting greatness.

Woods undoubtedly has the potential to match Ali’s contribution to modern American life. But one need only listen to his views on the subject of Fuzzy Zoeller to realise that he is far from ready to take up the challenge.

Zoeller, it will be recalled, responded to his young rival’s victory last year by telling a television interviewer he hoped that Woods would not be serving up “collard greens, fried chicken or whatever it is they eat”.

The remark was a reference to the annual champions’ dinner at Augusta, at which the reigning champion chooses the menu, and the word “they” was a dismissive reference to black Americans. It was as insidious a piece of racism as has ever been uttered by a world-class sportsman, yet Woods has resisted immense pressure from black and anti-racist groups to rebuke the older golfer publicly.

Zoeller’s comments initially lost him the support of a couple of his sponsors but he has slowly been rehabilitated. He was up to his old tricks again recently, insisting his remarks at last year’s Masters had been “taken out of context”.

Woods refuses to be drawn into the affair. “I know what I want to say but I’m not going to tell you guys [the press].” And how were relations with Zoeller? “I think we have got some mutual respect for each other.” It is impossible to imagine Ali remaining so sanguine in such circumstances.

Woods has at least shown a bit of wit and style in the choice of menu for his dinner: cheeseburger, fries, vanilla and strawberry milkshake. “Burgers are what I grew up eating and that’s what I’m still eating,” he said. “It’s just part of being young and growing up. It’s what I am. After all, Sandy Lyle served haggis at his champions’ dinner.” There was a hint of mischief in his voice. All hope is not lost.

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